It was a great week for live music in Washington — Fleetwood Mac brought its “Tour 2013″ to the Verizon Center Tuesday night, out pop singer Mika brought his acoustic show to the Sixth & I Synagogue Wednesday night and on Friday, queer organist Cameron Carpenter made his Washington-area debut at the Strathmore in Bethesda. The proceedings were stellar all around — I’ll dissect chronologically.
Many, many years of following various pop and rocks have brought me to the realization that so many acts sort of “train” their audiences what to expect and the Mac is a perfect example. Its members — namesake rhythm section Mick Fleetwood and John McVie along with singer/songwriters Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham — talk in interviews as if they’re dutifully restricted from mixing things up too much because even with longtime songstress Christine McVie long gone (only one of her songs was performed — the chestnut “Don’t Stop”), they still have a truckload of ground they feel obligated to cover with songs like “Second Hand News,” “The Chain,” “Dreams,” “Rhiannon,” “Go Your Own Way” and the list goes on and on.
Thankfully the Mac — touring a second consecutive time now without a new album out — is throwing in a few surprises. Nicks has revived the long-dormant “Tusk” track “Sisters of the Moon” for the first time since the “Mirage Tour” in the early ’80s. There’s also one all-new track (“Sad Angel”) Buckingham says is slated for an imminent EP and the ancient-but-never-released song “Without You,” a ballad that featured perhaps the loveliest Buckingham/Nicks harmonies of the evening.
Except for some very anti-Mac-like remix-type looping touches brought into “World Turning,” the arrangements were tried and true. Nobody could argue the Mac doesn’t know how to give the masses what they want. Which can be a little disappointing for the die hards who go hear them every time they tour. Or even the more casual fans who tend to be more musically adventurous. Though many of the suggestions thrown about are utterly absurd — Thomas Conner’s naive op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times last week is a great example — I could have gone for maybe 10 percent more adventure. A good starting point would have been “Soldier’s Angel,” the haunting duet Buckingham joined Nicks on for her brilliant 2011 album “In Your Dreams.”
With some acts — Madonna for one — you know you’re not going to hear every hit every tour. The Mac has never been like this, yet a few more unexpected moments would keep them a notch or two further away from the “cashing in/gravy train” bandwagon they’re clearly on. If you think for a second this is about the music and not the money, recall the arm twisting it took to get Nicks to agree to this. There was a well-publicized ballyhoo in 2012 when Fleetwood whined in a Playboy interview that he doubted the Mac would ever tour again when Nicks insisted on giving her solo album another year of touring. It was so wildly overstated that here they are on tour the very next year. (Nicks said later three years — and she’s right — feels like a good amount of time to go between Mac tours.)
While the band has been more about money than music for eons, I will say a few quick things: one, the music at Tuesday night’s show was scary good. Nicks, though she doesn’t scream and growl as she used to, has developed into a very solid singer. There wasn’t one off-pitch sound that came from her mouth the whole night. And Buckingham’s guitar work was as great as it has ever been. If there’s one upside to the lack of Mac recordings in the last 10 years or so, it’s that Buckingham’s solo career has soared off in the other direction with a trio of masterfully conceived and executed solo albums (2006′s “Under the Skin,” 2008′s “Gift of Screws” and 2011′s “Seeds We Sow”).
Given the way the Internet has decimated album sales — especially new work from veteran acts — one can hardly argue with their “let’s just tour” approach. Still nobody seemed to notice the irony of the situation when Buckingham spoke about not wanting to run something that worked (“Rumours”) into the ground when it came time to make “Tusk.” Sadly now the band is doing almost exactly that — touring clearly works (I’ve never seen the Verizon Center so packed and on a weeknight no less) so why be bothered with doing a new album? While the night was great fun, the reality that the Mac seems highly uninterested in doing much beyond trudging out the staples — Nicks is the chief foot dragger — lent the proceedings a bittersweet air.
And why can’t we all just agree to let Christine McVie do what she wants? Legions of the Mac faithful seem to be holding out hope that she’ll one day rejoin them for one last outing. While yeah, that would be cool for “old time’s sake” (McVie said recently she would consider joining them on stage in London if they ask her later this year), they’ve already done that. Why do we need another “The Dance”-type outing (the name of a ’97 reunion tour with the classic lineup), especially if McVie’s heart is not in it? I would feel differently if they’d never done “The Dance,” but since they have, it’s time for everybody to move on.
Mika’s show the next night was an interesting study in contrasts — from a veteran band reliving its glory days to a young singer (he’s 29) only on his third album playing a small, atmosphere-heavy synagogue (it’s actually a great concert spot — much more music-friendly than the much-lauded 9:30 Club) with a throng of young fans at fever-pitch excitement throughout the evening. Touring behind his near-masterpiece album of last fall “Origin of Love,” the obscenely talented popster poured his passionately creamy falsetto-hued vocals and drivingly percussive piano playing through a nearly two-hour set that was the furthest thing from phoned in you could imagine.
Working with a tight two-man band — players who seemed to grab any instrument of the dozens on stage they could quickly get their hands on — Mika radically reinvented several songs from their studio versions (a ballad version of dance cut “Stardust” from the new album was perhaps the most radical), led several all-out audience sing-alongs (and the crowd knew every word) on “Grace Kelly,” “Love Today” and “Celebrate” among others, and even stepped away from the mic for nearly two full numbers just to savor the acoustics — which are stellar — of the venue. All were show-stopping in the best way.
Mika truly has it all — killer voice, great songwriter, solid musical chops and just-left-enough-of-center looks and charm to never be mistaken for a “Bachelor” contestant. He’s sort of our queer Justin Timberlake — with a much better current album out too, by the way.
Switching gears radically was Cameron Carpenter’s organ recital Friday night which, despite a few logistical head scratchers (more on that in a sec), was a musical accomplishment of Herculean, truly other-worldly proportions. Watching and hearing him play is much akin to the scene in the classic “Outer Limits” episode (“The Sixth Finger”) in which a scientist figures out a way to push evolution ahead a million years and suddenly the protagonist can play Bach he just picked up. Carpenter is almost in that league, having been something of a child prodigy who claims to have mastered “The Well-Tempered Clavier” in adolescence.
The first oddity was why Carpenter — with all the amazing pipe organs in Washington — was at the organ-less Strathmore at all. Playing an electronic Rodgers three manual brought in just for the occasion, Carpenter got more sonic contrast out of the thing than probably anybody else could have, but from the massive instrument at the National Cathedral, the new pipe organ at the Kennedy Center (where he’s rumored to be playing next year sometime) or even the glorious five-manual behemoth at National City Christian Church in Thomas Circle (which could just about have housed the somewhat disappointing turnout — of the Strathmore’s three balconies, only the lowest one was about half-full; the upper two sat empty), it seemed just plain dumb to have him there. It could be a harbinger of things to come — Carpenter’s most insistent recurring theme is his endless frustration at having to adapt to a different organ for each town he plays. Let’s hope whatever touring instrument he ends up with — he says it’s almost finished — has a little more sonic heft than the Rodgers. Which sounded OK — I’m not trashing it altogether. One could clearly tell, though, that it was a sound coming from speakers, not pipes.
That said, what Carpenter did with it was beyond staggering. His musical instincts — as sharp and deadly as Wolverine’s knife claws — are in a league of their own among organists, at least to my knowledge. He plays with a pianistic-like virtuosity that’s stunning to watch (a screen above him amplified his finger work). Often playing two manuals simultaneously with one hand, leap-frogging between the choir, great and swell like an Olympic sprinter and displaying the most nimble pedal work I’ve ever seen, Carpenter truly is a talent for the ages. Granted, the Rodgers had a minimal number of stops it appeared — it looked like a child’s toy compared to, say, the National City console — yet Carpenter changed registrations like most people blink. One five-minute improvisation he played featured more than 40 registration changes. That amount of tone painting just through stop changes was impressive in and of itself, forget about the actual note playing.
His wildly eclectic 100-odd minute show (played entirely from memory) featured everything from Bach works written for organ, transcribed for piano, then adapted back to organ (by Carpenter), two Liszt Transcendental Etudes he said were “nearly impossible to play,” a wickedly playful transcription of Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture and a playful encore/fantasia on — of all things — “Shortnin’ Bread,” a whimsical-but-no-less-dramatic way to end the evening. The highlights for me were a moody and languid — yet endlessly colorful — transcription of Isaac Albeniz’s piano work “Evocacion” (the first movement from “Iberia”) and a fantastically creative Marcel Dupre arrangement of a French Noel that Carpenter tackled in a deliciously subversive way, nearly matching the macabre wit Dupre brought to it originally.
Though nearly as night and day as one could fathom, all three shows were utterly magical and evenings I will never forget.
Fleetwood Mac’s set:
1. Second Hand News
2. The Chain
4. Sad Angel
6. Not That Funny
8. Sisters of the Moon
10. Big Love
12. Never Going Back Again
13. Without You
15. Eyes of the World
16. Gold Dust
17. So Afraid
18. Stand Back
19. Go Your Own Way
20. World Turning
21. Don’t Stop
22. Silver Springs
23. Say Goodbye
1. Grace Kelly
2. Toy Boy
4. Blue Eyes
5. Billy Brown
7. Love You When I’m Drunk
9. Stuck in the Middle
11. Big Girls
12. Origin of Love
13. Happy Ending
15. Relax, Take it Easy
18. Love Today
19. Over My Shoulder
Cameron Carpenter’s set:
1. Bach — Prelude 1 from “Well Tempered Clavier”/Fugue No. 15 in G Major
2. Bach/Busoni — Cello Suite No. 1
3. Bach — Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor
4. Albeniz — Evocacion from Iberia
5. Dupre — Variations on a Noel
6. Liszt — Feux Follets
7. Liszt — La Campanella
8. Bernstein — Candide Overture
9. Ives — The Alcotts from Concord Sonata
12. Chopin — Minute Waltz
13. Shortnin’ Bread